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SURVIVAL STRATEGIES OF THE URBAN POOR IN THE ABSENCE OF GOVERNMENTAL SUPPORT Amjad Nazeer1 April 2002 “People place their hopes in God,....since government is no longer 2

involved in such matters .”

Introduction: Life of the urban poor is a synonym of unending struggle. Without struggle their very existence is threatened3. There is a whole range of goods and commodities they have to make effort for. They have to work hard for their livelihood, settlement, food, health and several other necessities of life. Knowing the value, they also try to seek useful information and build social networks. With the lack of any state benefits or social security their struggle becomes even intensive. In this article, I am describing various efforts made by the urban poor for their day to day survival. Several means and methods are mentioned adopted by the poor to make a living and find a shelter. Survival of the urban poor mainly depends on their own efforts than any governmental support is my key argument. Absence of any formal policy in most of the poor countries forces them to find their own ways of survival. The conclusions I am going to draw surround on the observations about, ‘why and how the urban poor manage their survival themselves and analysis’ of the nature and form of their efforts.

Background: Hostile political and economic forces exclude the poor from labour and services sector. A major shift from labour- to capital-intensive productivity and technological standardization drive them out of industrial sector too. Low wages, low return and insecure working tenures push them down to substantial level. Under these conditions, the poor mostly depend themselves and look out for multiple ways of survival (Salway 1

The Author is a human rights activist and works for an international NGO in Pakistan. Source: A poor man from Armenia, Voices of the poor (World Bank) 3 I realize that urban poor is not a homogenous category. There are layers and strata among the poor. But in this essay I will generally refer to ‘all the urban poor’ who are struggling for their survival. 2

Amjad Nazeer

Survival Strategies of the Urban Poor


and Wood 2000: 670-677). Sluggish economic growth or turndown, inflation, centralized planning and increasing unemployment forces more and more people towards selfemployment (House et al 1993: 1).

Urban poverty has generally increased in third world countries. A massive number of workers have been retrenched under economic recession or structural adjustment programmes. Wages have declined and inflation has caused expensiveness. Obviously the worst victims are the poorest populations of cities (Gilbert 1994: 605-608). Governments have drawn back subsidies and welfare entitlements on basic goods and services. With shrinking resources and facilities the poor are forced to help themselves than placing hopes on any formal institutions (Iglesias 1992; Glewwe and Hall 1992 as cited in Gilbert 1994:608-609; Ferguson 1992: 62-70).

Lack of Governmental Support and the Urban Poor’s Efforts to Survive: De Soto (1989) argues that state bureaucracy and regulations pertaining to petty trading and settlements are a determining factor for urban migrant poor to adopt informal4 even illegal activities for their survival (Thomas 1995: 35, emphasis added). Survival efforts of the urban poor can be discussed here in two areas: i) Livelihood and ii) Settlement. But it will reflect these efforts going far beyond their concrete conceptions. i)

Livelihood efforts:

Being unemployed or under-employed in government or manufacturing sector, the poor are compelled to create some sort of job for themselves. There is clear evidence from Latin American and African cities where number of the poor engage themselves into minor income generation activities. Mostly unskilled and some of the skilled professions like repairing automobiles or becoming electrician, carpenter, barber or cobbler are part of the choice (Thomas: 1995: 9-14).

Shoe cleaning, day-labouring, street vending,

scavenging, domestic services, petty trading, becoming a porter, coolie or messenger and even begging are just a few of the activities urban poor adopt to survive (Gilbert 1994: 611-612; Thomas 1995: 17). In Lima for example, selling handprints, sweats and chocolates, cigarettes, ball pens, cheap trinkets, plastic bags, soaps, mirrors, combs and 4

Conceptually informal work falls in informal sector. Usually it is associated with poverty. But all informal workers may not be poor and all urban poor may not be (although many do) working in informal sector (Mead and Morrisson 1996: 1611). Thus my use of the term ‘informal’ and examples taken from informal sector will be just by default. Amjad Nazeer

Survival Strategies of the Urban Poor


telephone tokens are common jobs to earn some coins (Thomas 1995: 9-10). In desperation, some may opt for some criminal activities like pick pocketing, buying and selling stolen goods, prostitution, petty theft, shop lifting, burglary and playing tricks or fiddling (Seethuraman 1981 as cited in Thomas 1995: 19).

Although informal job or micro enterprises also involve enormous effort and competition but the poor somehow manage it to earn a living. It is the last resort for survival to the poor. To supplement their food several families have been observed planting vegetables and fruits in public plots in Nairobi and other African cities (Rakodi and Devas 1993; House et al 1993; Dasgupta 1992a,b; Drakakis-Smith 1990; Gefu 1992; Fashoyin 1993; Lautier 1990 as cited in Gilbert 1994: 611-614). Increased involvement of women and children in to income-generating activities or labour market is another means of coping with economic crisis (Boyden and Holden 1999; Dagenais 1993; Standing 1989; Mckayas as cited in Gilbert 1994: 616-621).

For many, risk-taking is part of survival efforts. For instance, out of 600 hawkers in Snatiago (1987), 87% were working without permit. Despite having applied for one, established shopkeepers pressurized Municipality not to legalize them. Three-quarters of them (around 66%) were household heads and 60% were the sole providers of their family. They always worked under harassment and fear of stock confiscation or imprisonment by the police (Thomas 1995: 57). Likewise hawking is a main livelihood source of several urban poor in Nairobi. All of them are unlicensed but on contrary to Santiago, they are highly organized and protect their ‘own’ sites with force. The de-facto right of their sites was recognized and respected by the fellow hawkers not by Council workers whom they bribed (Mitullah 1991: 18 as cited in Beall and Kanji 1999:10). Table.1.1: Percentage of informally working population in urban areas Country (City)






Ghana (Kumasi)






Nigeria (Lagos)







Amjad Nazeer

Survival Strategies of the Urban Poor


Table.1.2: Percentage of informally working population in urban areas. Asia India (Calcutta)



Indonesia ( Jakarta)






Source: Chambers (1990 as quoted in Thomas1992: 66). Entries selected by this author

Lack of infrastructure also hampers the poor to find an employment or commute for daily work. If government makes any promises, it takes so long that people are frustrated by that time and have to think of alternatives. For instance (see Ferguson 1992:63-65, 6869) a migrant Jamaican farmer diversified his income by making and selling crafts to the tourists. Loosing income with excessive competition he switched over to making toys, rugs and belts and then to selling Coca-Cola. Each gave little profit in the town and he could not go far due to lack of roads and transport facility. Under his restricted means he has to support his children’s education as education is not free. If late for transport or some other reason, factory owners do not let them in or deduct their half-day salary, saying, ‘it is not our problem.’ Poor workers have to walk long distances to get to their workplace. Investing in ROSCA5 is another survival strategy for the urban poor. Many a men and women are known to subscribe with ROSCA throughout South Asia. They keep a rupee or two aside from their daily income and circulate it in ROSCA members. It helps them to get some money rotationally without interest. This amount is used for consumption or for productive purposes. It also proves to be valuable in ceremonies or in crisis and helps to build social network as well (Sethi R. 1995: 163, 174-176). The poor urban families make their best to strengthen and develop social ties. Given the lack of state security they depend on their relatives, neighbourhood and community when sick or unemployed or suffering from a tragedy. People migrate from rural to urban areas usually with cooperation of any relative in the city (Roberts 1995: 163).


ROSCA (Rotatory Social Credit Associations) is not confined to the poor in South Asia. Well off people also set up ROSCAs. But there is a huge difference of scale. Amjad Nazeer

Survival Strategies of the Urban Poor


ii) Settlement efforts: Administrative rules (say in Peru) have been resisting back migrant peasants’ arrival and settlement in cities. The system is unwilling to accept them. They are excluded from state benefits and facilities as a norm. Consequently the poor adopt casual works and occupy public or private lands for their settlement (de Soto 1989: 11, as cited in Thomas 19995: 11).

State institutions rarely plan to accommodate migrant and the growing poor in urban areas. Even the most fundamental problem of shelter is resolved6 by the poor themselves. Most of them occupy deserted, fragile or dirty spaces around the city. Waste embankments, city outskirts, dumpsites and flood prone areas are the common choices. Gradually these locations convert into large squatters or slums. To settle into these areas, they have to deal with brokers’ mafia or police who charge their own commission. A vast majority of them installs their makeshift houses themselves. Despite so many struggles, threat of demolition by the authorities hovers upon their heads (Salway and Wood 2000: 675-676). According to a rough estimate 30-80% urban population of underdeveloped countries lives in self constructed squatter settlements (UN 1994, as cited in Roberts 1995: 158). Table.2: Estimates of the percentage of city population in squatter settlement (1980). City

Total Pop. (000)

Squatter settlements No. (000)


































Source: Habitat (1987 as quoted in Thomas 1992: 96). Entries selected by this author.

Before occupying a space many of them have to live as tenants or lodgers in a congested environment. For example in a slum at Santiago 140 persons were living in 6

The word ‘resolve’ has been used in a very conservative context.

Amjad Nazeer

Survival Strategies of the Urban Poor


18 rooms only (Gilbert 1994: 79-80 as cited in Thomas 1995: 96). In many Latin American cities like Lima, Salvador, Caracas and Guayaquil vast public land has been invaded by the poor for self-help housing. Local authorities turned blind eye, perhaps to avoid responsibility of settlement and service provision. It does not mean that self-help housing is easy or cheap in Lima; it also needs constant effort (Thomas 1995: 96-99).

Table. 3: Growth of self-help housing in selected Latin American cities (1969-1990) City


City pop (000)



housing Pop.(000)





































Source: Gilbert (1994 as given in Thomas 1995: 97). Span and cities reduced by this author.

Women and Survival Efforts: Women’s efforts for survival are highly significant and worth describing separately. Although less recognized but their contribution exceeds men in times of crisis. In most of the cases they bear double responsibility i.e doing household chores as well as regular work for income. Sometimes single mothers can survive better than in their husband’s presence (Chant 1991 as cited in Roberts 1995: 165). Most of them survive on domestic services some of them are forced to opt for prostitutes, if they fail to find work that can support them and their family (Ferguson 1992: 70). Case Study 1: From Domestic Servant to Street Trader in La Paz Soledad is thirty. She has a textile stall in La Paz center. Fourteen years ago she came from a village to work as a housemaid. In the large house she had a mattress in a cupboard, which housed electricity meter, brooms and buckets. She was at the beck and call of the family round the clock. After a year, fed-up with spiteful outbursts of family members she moved to another. It was no different from the previous one. By the time Amjad Nazeer

Survival Strategies of the Urban Poor


she got acquainted with Filmeno, a factory worker, whom she got married. The new couple began to live in a small rented room and soon had two children. Then Soledad got the job of a washerwoman. Being pregnant, It was too hard a job to continue. Now the couple decided to move to El Alto, where they bought a small piece of land and constructed a small room with the help of friends. There she had her third baby, a premature sickly girl who died within a year. When her mother came to live with her, Soledad began to sell homemade food together with one of her neighbours. She stopped doing that because they always argued over money. Then she took up smuggling small textile consignments, buying them from Peru and selling them in La Paz. She would make four bus trips in a week. In spite of bribing customs and steady fall in prices, she made fair sum of money and saved some of it. This became even vital when Filmeno lost his job under government’s austerity programme. Depressed, he started drinking. Soledad was now in a position to buy things from women smugglers herself. So she devoted all her energies to her textile stall in the city center. Unfortunately her relationship with her husband got worse. Eventually, she threw him out of the house. Source: Verkoren and Lindert (1994:46, as quoted in Thomas:1995: 80). Abridged by this author.

The life of a poor Zimbabwean woman ‘Esther’, studied by Schlyter (2001: 3-14) is a best example of women’s survival efforts. Her squatter settlement, which she built herself, was bulldozed twice by the town Council. With her persistence struggle she succeeded to build a suitable house with her own income. Low-cost-housing unit was the only facility she got from the town Council. From vending to, sewing, poultry raising, trading, lodging, running a welding-workshop and even a shebeen are all the various occupations she adopted one after other to earn some money and raise her five children. Council laws, property ownership and working rules, housing and zoning regulations were rather a hindrance to Esther’s efforts. Burman and Lembete (1995: 28-30) interviewed some low educated mothers in Cape Town. Out of 19, three were divorced others were unwed mothers. Being discriminated by their kinfolk, they had to depend entirely on themselves for their and their children’s survival. Two of them were cleaners, one saleslady, one a bakery attendant and others were trained nurses, teachers, secretaries and like that. Their income hardly ranged from R.120 to R.1000/month. Almost all of them did work part time in shops or houses to compensate their insufficient income.

Amjad Nazeer

Survival Strategies of the Urban Poor


Being unskilled and uneducated many poor women turn to seek credit from micro- credit organizations or from a relative. They set up micro-businesses to earn some profit. Hundreds of women are running micro enterprises like handy-crafts, sewing and tailoring through credit in South Asia and Latin America. One Bangladeshi woman, for instance, was so much successful in making fish-nets that she bought a rickshaw for her husband (Berger 1989: 107, 1021-1022).

To protect their source of livelihood women are not passive all the times. There are number of female street traders in Mexico City whose only source of income are mini stalls in the market (McVey 1997 as cited in Beal and Kanji: 1999: 11). Each of them has occupied specific spot in the city center. To hold their trading space they actively resisted the city authorities who tried to evict them. They succeeded to save their sites in return of political support they promised to the councilors. They knew that losing their spots meant losing their livelihood (ibid: 10).

Children and Survival Efforts: Sad, but it is a reality that children also engage in labour to supplement meager income of their family. They contribute in household income through multiple tasks and share domestic work (Beall and Kanji 1999: 13). Some of them work independently, others with their parents. They can be found in cottage industries, family enterprises and services, often working in harmful conditions (Thomas 1995: 85).

Case Study 2: Child Work in Bogota’s Quarries and Brickyards Around 100 children work in Bogota quarries and brickyards. These enterprises operate with primitive technology, involving intensive labour. On average, children work 9-12 hours/day and 7 days a week. They usually work as helpers to their parents or other adults. In quarry, they assist extracting large rocks and feeding them into hoppers, then shoveling material into crushers and at sieving. In brickyards, they transport and pile up bricks. Having dried, they put them into the kiln for firing. Finally they load them into the trucks. They also lead mules deriving the mill and carry coal to the kiln. About half the children receive payment in kind and others are paid through their parents. Their daily wage is less than 1US$.

Amjad Nazeer

Survival Strategies of the Urban Poor


Source: Salazar (1988: 49-60 as quoted in Thomas 1995: 86-87). Abridged by this author.

Some poor children, as in Jamaica, pick up food from garbage and bottles or tins to sell and reduce burden on their parents (Ferguson: 1992:66). Thousands of children work in carpet and support industries in Pakistan to supplement their households’ income.

Conclusions: As we have seen, the urban poor have to make numerous efforts just to survive in antagonistic environment. They make efforts at individual, household or community level as the circumstances demand. When governments fail to plan to accommodate them, they settle in haphazardly wherever they find an empty space. Possessing a public land or living on a dumpsite only reflects a fundamental necessity of having a shelter. Moving from place to place or holding a squatter settlement is actually a struggle for a house. They know that permanent housing is directly linked with permanent employment.

When there is no room for a descent employment either in public or private sector they choose whatever occupation seems to help them survive. ‘Endeavours of Soledad and Asther’ is a complete metaphor of the life of urban poor. Shifting occupations of the Jamaican hawker is but to find a reliable form of income. Growing vegetable on public space is a way to secure food. Like the Bangladeshi woman, saving pennies or setting up a micro-enterprise is a desire for self-sustenance. For underemployed women of Costa Rica, doing an extra job is to align efforts to fulfill their children needs. Bribing local authorities like Nairobi hawkers or resisting the threat of eviction like Mexican traders are only two forms of the same end i.e to protect their livelihoods. These are actually the symptoms of fear and uncertainty. This all happens because there is no administrative arrangement to accommodate street traders. Scavenging or pick pocketing is the indicator of wide spread unemployment. Trash picking of children or labouring in brickyards/quarries is an economic safety to poor parents not a sign of shortsightedness. Opposite to government claims, education is still expensive in most of the places.

Amjad Nazeer

Survival Strategies of the Urban Poor


Running a sheben or smuggling can be legally objectionable but for Asther and Soledad there was no way out. Prostitution is immoral but it is better to die with hunger. The debate of fair-unfair and legal-illegal means of income is either official dichotomy or an elite perception of the poor. For them, it isn’t deliberate but a way of survival. So long as government continues behaving indifferent to the poor, they will have to survive on their own efforts. +++++++++

References Cited:

Beall, J. and Kanji, N. (August 1999) Households, livelihoods and urban poverty, Urban governance, partnership and poverty series, Theme Paper No. 3. Site-hit: (10 April 2002)

Berger, Marguerite (1989) Giving women credit: The strengths and limitations of credit as a tool for alleviating poverty, World development, Vol. 17, No. 7, pp. 1017-1032, Printed in Great Britain.

Burman and Lemlembete (1995) Building new realities: African women and ROSCAs in Urban South Africa, (in) Ardener and Burman (1995) Money-go-rounds: The importance of rotating savings and credit associations for women (ed.), Berg publishers limited, Oxford.

Carter Michael, R. and May, Julian (1999) Poverty, livelihood and class in rural South Africa, World Development, Vol. 27, No. 1, p. 1-20, Printed in Great Britain.

Ferguson, James (1992) Jamaica: Stories of poverty, Race And Class, Vol. 34, No.1 pp. 61-71

Gilbert, Allan. (1994) Third world cities: Poverty, employment, gender roles and environment during a time of restructuring, Urban Studies, Vol. 31, Nos. 4/5, pp. 605-633.

House, William J., Ikiara G. and Mccormick, D. (1993) Urban self employment in Kenya: Panacea or viable strategy?, World Development, Vol. 21, No. 7, pp. 1205-1223, Printed in Great Britain.

Mead, Donald C. and Morrisson, Christian (1996) The informal sector elephant, World development, Vol. 24, No. 10, pp. 1611-1696, Printed in Great Britain. Amjad Nazeer

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Roberts, Bryan R. (1995) The making of citizens: Cities of peasants revisited, Hodder headline group, Great Britain.

Schlyter, Ann (2001) Esther’s house-home, business and lodgers’ shelter: Multi-habitation in Citungwisa, African urban economies series, Nordic African Institute, Uppsala.

Sethi Raj, M. (1995) Women’s ROSCAs in contemporary Indian society, (in) Ardener and Burman (1995) Money-go-rounds: The importance of rotating savings and credit associations for women (ed.), Berg publishers limited, Oxford.

Thomas, J.J (1995) Surviving in the city: The urban informal sector in Latin America, Critical studies on Latin America series, Pluto press, London.

Thomas, J.J. (1992) Informal economic activity, LSE handbooks in economics series, Harevester Wheatsheaf, Great Britain.

Wood, G. and Salway, S. (2000) Policy Arena: Introduction: Securing livelihoods in Dhaka slums, Journal of International Development J.Int. Dev. 12, 669-688 (2000)

Amjad Nazeer

Survival Strategies of the Urban Poor